Traditionally, travelers to Portugal would visit the popular sites in the middle and south of the country. Lisbon, Obidos, the Algarve coast, etc. Magrit and I first visited this beautiful and versatile country over 25 years ago but did not venture north of the midpoint. However, in 2017 we spent 3.5 weeks in Portugal researching for a 2018 photo tour offering. This time we did explore the north and completely fell in love with this region. And we were not surprised that this new tour sold out almost instantly (Portugal Photo Tour | A Visual Feast).
Porto is the second-largest city in Portugal (roughly 250.000 inhabitants) and also the gateway to the visually stunning Douro Valley which stretches all the way to the Spanish border. The Douro River winds it way through a deep gorge past Porto and into the Atlantic. The city itself was built on the north shore of this gorge which means there are some very steep hills to navigate and bridges spanning the large gap. Both of these elements, steep hills and bridges, provide great opportunities for fantastic photos. The steepness of the terrain creates a great stage for Porto’s very colorful and graphic architecture, with some of the areas cascading down to the river shore. The bridges, especially the Ponte Luís I, offer a birds eye view of Porto. This is a great location for sunset and Blue Hour photography.
Porto is an old city, dating back as far as 300 BC. Like many old cities, Porto has a gritty, worn edge to it, which we as photographers often find irresistible. But the city also has a fresh, lively and vibrant vibe about it. We’ve met many young and energetic entrepreneurs, who have recently opened exciting restaurants, hotels, B&Bs, and shops. Contrary to how the Portuguese feel about their cuisine, we often do not find traditional Portuguese food particularly interesting. In Porto, on the other hand, we experienced some very tasty and contemporary food. Our B&B host recommended Brick Clérigos on Campo Martires da Patria for lunch. This is a very small and unpretentious place with one large communal table and some outdoor seating. The open-faced sandwiches there were out of this world. We liked it so much we came back for dinner!
Viticulture in this region dates back to antiquity, but it was not until the late 17th century that the British started to fortify wine with brandy to ensure a longer shelf-life and called it Port. Porto is the center for the maturing, blending and bottling of the wine. This all happens in dilapidated old warehouses across the river from Porto in the Vila Nova de Gaia district. In the old days the barrels of port where transported from the wineries upriver in the Douro Valley to the warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia by flat-bottom boats called Rabelos. Some of these boats have been preserved by the wineries. They are anchored along the shore and are wonderful photographic elements. We especially like photographing here early in the morning, arriving before sunrise and before the tourists. If we are lucky we will get some atmospheric fog rising from the river. This is also a great place to photograph the very colorful and graphic buildings which stack upon each other across the river on the north side of the gorge.
Upriver from Porto a couple of hours is Portugal’s rural Douro Valley. This area’s terrain includes a vast gorge with the River Douro running through it and steep, terraced vineyards rising a few hundred feet upward. A few very small towns are located along the river shore and many wineries are found here, most specializing in the growth and production of port wine. Quinta de la Rosa is one of the wineries we visited where the grapes are still being crushed with bare feet. The reason for this technique is that human feet don’t crush the seeds of the grapes which would add a bitter flavor to the wine. Feet only break the skin of the grapes therefor allowing the pure juice to be released for fermentation. Grape crushing traditionally is a big fun party. The “crushers” move in single file, arm in arm across large vats, stomping their feet to the rhythm of raucous music.
For photographers this is a landscape paradise, especially during mid-June when we visit. The vineyards are at their most brilliant green and the succulent vines curve around the contours of the hillsides in terraced rows, which make for very graphic compositions. A long telephoto zoom works well here. I like the 70-200, 70-300 or 100-400 range on a full-frame camera.
In addition to great photographic opportunities, the Douro has plenty of wineries to visit for tastings and tours. This rural countryside is also dotted with small villages which are great for visiting and exploring, especially midday to include a local lunch. The cuisine here features fresh products from the countryside including delicious roasted baby goat with rice and potatoes, wild boar stew, olives, vegetables, freshly baked bread and off course excellent wines. River fish and the traditional Portuguese codfish dishes are also featured. Give one or two of the over 300 reconstituted codfish preparations a try. To be honest, to our pallet, all of it tastes pretty much as exciting as is sounds (and smells). An acquired taste, for sure.
The Douro Valley is a wonderful region to include when visiting Portugal’s north, especially when combined with a few days in nearby Porto. There are many daily flights into Porto from Lisbon (about one hour). We visited in July 2017 and were worried that it might be too hot in the Douro Valley. We were lucky with fairly mild weather but as a rule it might be best to avoid the Douro in July and August. The coastal towns seem to be more manageable during the hot season because of pleasant Atlantic breezes.
If you are interested in photographing this region with a small group of like-minded travelers join us next June for a wonderful 13-day photo tour, June 6-18, 2019. This tour begins in Porto and ends in Lisbon (reconstituted cod fish is optional). Here is a link to our 2018 Portugal Photo Tour.
Jim and Magrit
|Jim and Magrit have been photographing professionally and traveling in Europe for the past 20 years.
They started Photography Travel Tours in 2011 with the goal of educating and guiding photographers to some of the most beautiful and iconic scenes in Europe.
The tours are not just about getting great photographs but also have the side benefits of doing so in wonderful environments. Great food, wine, people, and ambiance.
Read more about Jim & Magrit and their wonderful photo tours here: (http://photographytraveltours.com/about/).
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.